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Bill de Blasio said to be on learning curve

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reads

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reads to children in a pre-kindergarten class at P.S. 130 on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images / Pool

City government veterans say Mayor Bill de Blasio faces a "learning curve" as he grows into the job of New York's chief executive, but predict that controversial judgment calls from his first two months won't do long-term damage.

De Blasio has caught heat for, among other things, phoning an NYPD official on behalf of an arrested supporter, keeping schools open despite blizzard-like conditions and riding in an official car whose driver ignored traffic laws two days after de Blasio announced a safe-streets plan.

"It's reasonable to give people some benefit of the doubt," said John Liu, a former city comptroller, ex-rival for mayor and fellow progressive. "A new officeholder, whether it's mayor or any other office, will have a little bit of learning curve."

With the city's Democratic politicians enjoying full control of City Hall for the first time in 20 years, they have shown little inclination to become critics of de Blasio. A rare exception came when Comptroller Scott Stringer deemed "problematic" the call that de Blasio made to police about Bishop Orlando Findlayter, who was arrested on outstanding warrants but spared a night in jail.

The mayor's sharpest Democratic antagonist is from the outside -- his onetime boss, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Cuomo has offered stinging critiques of de Blasio's request for Albany's assent to hike taxes on high-income New Yorkers to fund universal prekindergarten and to raise the city's minimum wage. Cuomo, pushing a state-funded pre-K plan, said de Blasio's ideas pit the city against poorer upstate towns.

Other key parts of de Blasio's policy agenda, such as plans to limit charter schools, are also sure to provoke battles. The recent flaps are seen more as a management issue.

The consensus among city pols is that "these are incidents that people in six months, nine months won't be too concerned about -- unless they just keep coming," New York University political science professor Jeanne Zaino said.

De Blasio needs to explain himself more effectively, observers and supporters say. He ignored news media queries about the motorcade incident for four days.

"Take the questions and all of them now. Put the issue to bed. Not rocket science," tweeted Lis Smith, who had served as his campaign and transition spokeswoman.

When he finally spoke and was asked about perceived stumbles, de Blasio said he knows he operates in a "high-scrutiny environment" and can take the heat.

"There are going to be some adjustments I expect, but we're all going to do better in the next couple of months," said Ken Sunshine, a public relations expert and de Blasio transition team member. "It's too easy for the media to just trivialize . . . honest mistakes or mistakes that get blown into cataclysmic events," he said.

Some citizen groups also say de Blasio deserves more time.

The New York City Parents Union denounced keeping schools open during the Feb. 13 storm as "outrageous" and "irresponsible." But member Sam Pirrozolo said Wednesday: "We need to learn from it and move forward. If de Blasio can show that he can listen and respond, he's so far ahead of the game."

Mayoral press secretary Phil Walzak, in an interview, pointed to advances de Blasio has made on preparing for universal pre-K, extending paid sick leave, overhauling stop and frisk and a deal to guide the future of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. "The mayor and the mayor's office and team here are just going to continue to keep our heads down and pound away on the substantive issues that matter most," he said.

De Blasio still has not named heads for key agencies, such as the Human Resources Administration, the Parks Department and the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Bill Cunningham, who was communications director for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, credited de Blasio for wanting to get his team "right."

"He's being very deliberate," Cunningham said. "It's like he's clustering by category some of his appointments, and that means to me . . . they're thinking through how the team will interact."

Cunningham said de Blasio shows the same methodical thinking in the universal pre-K tax fight, which even some sympathizers consider unwinnable.

The mayor can "take a bow" for advancing universal pre-K even without the tax because Cuomo is backing an alternative that could work.

"Whether he [de Blasio] gets half a loaf or three-quarters of a loaf or the entire loaf, everybody will find a way to take credit," Cunningham said.

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